America is dangerously divided over vaccines

Geographical and political fault-lines have caused a similar divide over the COVID-19 vaccine ... with deadly results.



August 6, 2021 - 1:41 PM

Volunteers and staffers knock on a door during an outreach effort to inform residents about a scheduled COVID-19 vaccination event, on June 30, 2021, in Birmingham, Alabama. (Elijah Nouvelage/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

HEFLIN, Ala. — Peyton Thetford straddles two Americas.

Inside the intensive care unit at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, the 27-year-old nurse has witnessed a dramatic uptick in new COVID-19 patients struggling to breathe. But after grueling 12-hour shifts — moving patients from their backs to their stomachs and then turning them onto their sides every two hours to keep their oxygen levels up — he leaves the hospital and sees hardly anyone wearing masks or practicing social distancing.

“It’s kind of like the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ where you wake up and everything’s the exact same and you can’t do anything to change it,” he said. “You’re just coming to work and watching people die.”

As the U.S. reached the milestone this week of getting at least one dose of a vaccine into the arms of 70% of the adults in the country, few people were celebrating. The highly contagious delta variant was surging across the U.S., and there was growing exasperation that the national project to stem the spread of the coronavirus had stalled as it met resistance to vaccinations in large sections of the conservative South and Midwest.

The split between those who have received their COVID-19 shots and those who refuse to be vaccinated follows familiar geographical and political fault lines. Democratic-leaning states in the Northeast, such as Vermont and Massachusetts, lead the way in vaccinations while staunchly Republican states that voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020, including Alabama and Mississippi, have the lowest vaccination rates and the steepest increase in cases and hospitalizations.

Ever since the health crisis began in the United States, the coronavirus, in all its forms and variants, has magnified the nation’s political differences. Americans have disagreed on wearing masks, government lockdowns, and even the seriousness of a virus that’s killed nearly 615,000 people in the U.S.

“This is the most politicized I’ve ever seen America — and the tragedy is that it’s politicized over a life-and-death issue,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster advising the Biden administration COVID-19 task force about how to reach people reluctant to get the vaccine.

As delta has caused a rash of cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations across the U.S., the highest number of cases and the most severe outcomes are happening in areas with low vaccination rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the pace of vaccinations also has risen over the last few weeks, particularly in Southern states with strong hesitancy against getting the shot.

Still, Alabama lags behind all other states with just 40% of residents over the age of 12 fully vaccinated — compared with Vermont, which has fully inoculated nearly 77%. The number of COVID-19 patients in Alabama hospitals has climbed in the last month from about 213 to 1,736. If the current rate of increase continues, the president of the Alabama Hospital Association has warned that within another month hospitals in the state could exceed the January peak of 3,089 patients.

But many Alabama residents seem more worried about the vaccine than the virus.

“I don’t want to be a guinea pig,” said Renee Dunn, 43, in a recent interview. Dunn is a manager at Jack’s fast-food restaurant in Heflin, a tiny east Alabama town that is the county seat of Cleburne County, a rural area that has one of Alabama’s lowest vaccination rates. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, 1 in 4 residents over the age of 12 in Cleburne County has been fully vaccinated.

Dunn worried the vaccines were manufactured too quickly. Her mother had a bad reaction to a vaccine this year and suffered from sore joints, fever and confusion, she said, and her son felt so sick he missed a few days of work after taking his first shot. Serious side effects are rare.

Dunn suffers from Crohn’s disease and arthritis — conditions that made her vulnerable — and had COVID-19 in December. She didn’t know last week if she still had antibodies that would protect her from future variants and had not sought her doctor’s advice about vaccines.

Politics, she said, had nothing to do with her reluctance. She did not vote in 2020. But she said one factor that might change her mind: FDA approval of a vaccine.

Other residents of this staunchly conservative Alabama county, where nearly 9 in 10 voters cast ballots for Trump in 2020, were more resistant.

Ryan Jackson, a pharmacist who manages Wright Drug Co. in Heflin, said he had heard every reason not to get a shot: fear that the vaccines could lead to side effects such as infertility, belief that the risks of COVID-19 have been exaggerated, outlandish theories about the vaccines containing microchips for government tracking. Some of the biggest pushback has come from those who don’t trust the government.

“You hear the conspiracy theories; they don’t trust the government, a lot of political factors,” said Jackson, who is vaccinated. “It’s just a complete distrust of everybody in authority.”